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Living High

 

by June Burn

 

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Excerpt from “How Do You Get To Alaska?”

 

When we went ashore in Seattle, we knew the time had come to start thinking about how we were going to Alaska.


We went to a clean hotel down near the waterfront and started on a simple program of asking everyone we saw how we could get there.


"I beg your pardon do you know how a couple could find jobs that would take them to Alaska?"
"Hello, Sonny, if you wanted to get to Alaska, what would you do?"


"Good morning, Ma'am, can you think of any way to find a job that would take a couple to Alaska?"


Down on the waterfront we asked, "Where is your captain? Any chance of getting on your crew as stewards or cooks or deck hands?" Into the offices of the steamship companies we went. "Do you need cooks, stewards, typists, deck hands on your boats going to Alaska?"
Every person we asked made some courteous reply. Nobody was gruff or abrupt. They would scratch their heads, figuratively, anyhow, and consider the matter at more length, sometimes, than was convenient. Boys, men, women, executives, captains, sailors they all gave the best advice they could.


One day we were walking down First Avenue when we ran into a gray haired Negro. "Good morning, Uncle, can you tell us any way to get to Alaska get jobs that would take us there?"
The old man stood a little while in thought, then he said, "Yassir, I uz down heppin to load de ship Saturn, jist yistiddy, and J heerd de capn say dat he wuz a lookin fur a man an his wife to teach school up on de Pribilofs. You all schoolteachers?"


We said we could be and we hurried down to where the Saturn was tied up at the dock. The captain, a Scandinavian, was cordial and kind, but thirty minutes ago, he had hired a man and his wife for the Pribilofs. He suggested, though, that we go to see Mr. Lopp of the Bureau of Education. It was late for this year, but there might still be a vacancy somewhere in Alaska.
Mr. Lopp interviewed us within an inch of our lives. He wanted to know all about our pasts, our beliefs, education, experience, personalities. But the upshot was that we both got jobs in his service, Farrar at $135 a month, I at $120, lasting for twelve months, with the possibility of holding them for three years, if we were good and didn't go having babies right away for we were going into the Far North where there were few other white people.


Years later, we learned that Mr. Lopp had been in a tight spot that week. The Victoria was due to sail for Nome on its last trip and he hadn't yet found teachers for St. Lawrence Island. He admitted that he would have grabbed much worse prospects than we seemed to be. But the stage lost a good man when Mr. Lopp went into government service, for nobody would have guessed from his severe manner that we were his last hope for the year.


Tom Lopp was one of the greatest friends the Eskimos ever had. That is why, no doubt, he lost his job in the Bureau of Education during those boom years. For in our country, as in England, the procedure seems to be to take care of our primitive subjects with half an eye to them and an eye and a half to the few members of our own race who live by exploiting them. Mr. Lopp worked the other way, and though he came to be regarded as the outstanding authority on Eskimo economy and was often called into consultation in later years when things got in a mess, he lost his position, and died recently, a strong, young, gusty man, still mourning his lost charges.


Farrar was to be manager of the island, the native cooperative store, the reindeer herd a sort of governor and lather combined. I was to have charge of the school, with one native assistant. Store and medical supplies had been ordered and were ready to go, Mr. Lopp said, but we would have to buy our own year's food supplies and winter clothing. He advanced $300 against our salaries for that purpose.


We could hardly suppress our glee until we left the office. How much better the reality than anything we had expected! What was it that brought us such fabulous luck every step of the way? Three hundred dollars in our pockets and a first class ticket to Nome, Alaska! We were going to St. Lawrence Island, in sight of Siberia, out in Bering Sea. It was within the Arctic Circle. Nobody but Eskimos there, and we were to govern and teach a primi¬tive people. We were filled with determination to do some really worthy work, and with exhilaration at our sheer luck. I have never been sure whether we were 'almost ribald honeymooners on a lark sponsored by the government, or pure missionaries burning with zeal for the work ahead. A little of both, I guess.


I don't remember what we bought in the way of clothes. Mr. Lopp said that the Eskimos would make us some skin garments when we got to St. Lawrence Island, but that we might need some woolens of our own. But I do remember how we splurged buying food. After a year of semifamine, all we could think of was food. Nine sacks of clean seed wheat and a new grist mill. Five sacks of seed corn for real hand ground cornmeal mush and spoon bread. Two sacks of steel¬cat oats. Two dozen two pound cans of butter. Powdered milk and eggs. Cans of spinach, beans, milk. Cans and cans of coffee. Sugar, candy for the children's Christmas, huge chocolate bars for use on the trail, which the sailors on the Bear nibbled clean out of existence before we got to St. Lawrence. One day we overheard them talking about our supplies the oddest selection any of the teachers had carried up, I expect. "What can the Reverend Burn want with these sacks of corn?" one of them said, with insinuations in his voice. Formerly it had been missionaries who had gone to Alaska to teach the Eskimos, and though they were now government employed teachers, most of the sailors still spoke of them as "the reverend and his wife."


In a week we were ready to sail, and so was the old Victoria. With supplies for the native store, medical supplies, school books, thirty five tons of coal in sacks, and our own food supplies and baggage, "the teachers" for St. Lawrence must have filled a pretty big hole in the hold of the ship.


Here we go, then! Cast off the lines! The old boat backs slowly out into the Sound and heads north. We are taking the outside passage, out Juan de Fuca, around Vancouver Island, straight across the Gulf of Alaska to the Aleutian Islands. Our first stop will be Akutan, Aleutian whaling station.

 

 

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